“I never was taught to breathe. I never was taught that I had that power to control my emotions,” began Keesha Archard, 3rd grade teacher at Shekou International School in Shenzhen, China. As we sipped our morning beverages at our local Starbucks, we continued to talk about our own mindfulness practices, and how play with mindfulness can support children.
Before she found ways to incorporate mindful exercises into the classroom, Archard experienced their power in her own life. While she experienced anxiety at school in her teen years, which persisted into adulthood, she harnessed her inhalations and exhalations to bring back her center. “It’s amazing, just the power of breath,” Archard noted as she explained how running and yoga first helped her understand how to control her breath, opening up the ability to be more in tune with her emotions.
As a mother and teacher, Archard has sought to empower her students to feel connected to and in control of their thoughts and emotions. I first caught wind of Archard’s work on mindful classroom practices at dinner one evening. My surrogate South African nephew Aidan was talking about “cooling his Hot Cocoa” as he breathed in deeply, and then exhaled slowly into his cupped hands.
Archard has found that allowing space for a mindful practice each afternoon after recess allows students to calm themselves down after a good deal of activity, and find their center.
Archard has also discovered a number of other breathing exercises that work with children. In order to quiet a young restless mind, have youngsters open up their hands with all five fingers wide, then take one finger and trace the other hand with the pointer finger as you breath in and out, going up and down each finger.
Children may also find that practicing belly breathing helps to restore a sense of presence in a busy day. For especially young children, have them lie down on the floor and put a stuffed animal on their tummies and watch the animal as it moves with their big breaths.
While focusing on the breath is an important part of being mindful, focusing on any of the senses can help children to find their calm. Archard keeps a basket in the room with things from nature such as rocks and leaves. Students can choose to take an item and spend five minutes with it to explore their sense of touch and sight.
She uses a gong to help students use their sense of hearing to feel present. Students lie on their backs, in savasana, and when she rings the gong, students raise their hand when they hear complete silence.
Using a small bite of food, such as a raisin, Keeha helps students to practice mindfulness through taste. Smiling Mind is a free app, with programs for seven to 18 year olds, to help guide many of these exercises.
The night that Aidan was cooling his cocoa, he also was excited to show me that he had learned several yoga poses, or asanas. With great care, Aidan got into Virabhadrasana II, Warrior II pose. He then transitioned into Vriksasana, or Tree Pose. When I mentioned this to Archard, she explained that she teaches students an asana every couple of days. After introducing different poses, and a number of the other mindfulness exercises, Archard allows for student choice.
While Archard understands the power of mindfulness through her own practice, her students’ requests for that mindful space in the day is further proof that children need a space to find their calm. In an often overscheduled and overstimulated day, one of the greatest gifts that we may offer children is a place “to know you always have your breath to control your thinking and your feeling.”